A woman escapes East Germany with her young son in the late 1970s, only to discover the same surveillance and suspicion that drove her from the East awaiting her in the “West.” One of several German filmmakers who have recently re-examined the pre-unification paradigm of a repressive East vs. a hedonistic West, Christian Schwochow charts the dysfunction of his divided country through his heroine’s mental breakdown. Jordis Triebel’s strong performance as a woman consumed by paranoia drew Montreal’s top actress nod, but “West,” like its heroine, ultimately gets mired in details. Further border crossings appear unlikely.
Based on a quasi-autobiographical novel by Julia Franck, the film transpires largely within the closed-in walls of West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center, where integration into any normal existence is held hostage by a series of tests and interviews that may or may not result in the necessary stamps of approval. Some pass through easily; others remain in limbo for months or even years.
Initially, the intransigent Nelly (Triebel) reacts with anger to the repeated, protracted interrogations by British, French and American agents. It turns out that her late lover and father of her son, Alexej (Tristan Gobel), may not merely have been a scientist; he might not even be dead. Indeed, she states that the reason she fled the East was that the Stasi’s constant harassment left her doubting her own past.
As the forces that drove her from her East German home pop up in new guises to torment her in the West, she begins to cave in to the fear and distrust running rampant through the Center, where every resident is a potential Stasi snitch, every entrant into West Berlin a potential spy. She manages to fend off her automatic defensiveness long enough to connect with a mischievous Polish musician (Anja Antonowicz) and her eminently sane father, but the respectful, helpful attentions of longtime internee Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who appoints himself her son’s protector, arouse nothing but mistrust. The Center’s repetitive, institutional nature, with its bunk beds, long shower lines and communal cafeteria, further undermines Nelly’s autonomy.
She begins to react erratically. She sets up a sexual encounter with a particularly attentive CIA agent (Jacky Ido), but whether she seeks to gain information or wrest control over her plight seems unclear even to herself. Her son, already mocked at school for his East German provenance and unfashionable clothing, watches his mother’s deepening paranoia with dread.
The symptomology of Nelly’s mental state, unconnected to any personality problems or childhood traumas and flowing directly from her country’s endemic schizophrenia, ultimately lacks specificity and color. Brief glimpses offered of Nelly’s ironic intelligence are soon buried in an impersonal pathology. One need only cite Nina Hoss’ vividly memorable performance in Christian Petzold’s East/West drama “Barbara” to appreciate how drearily one-note Schwochow’s German Everywoman seems by comparison.